High School Football Coach Fired for Praying on Field Files Federal Lawsuit

Kennedy-compressedBREMERTON, Wash. — A high school football coach in Washington state who was placed on leave last year until he agrees to stop praying at the 50-yard line has filed a federal lawsuit against his former employer, alleging religious discrimination.

As previously reported, Joe Kennedy, the assistant head coach for the varsity team at Bremerton High School and the head coach for the junior varsity team, was placed on paid administrative leave last October when he prayed at the conclusion of the homecoming game despite an order to cease his practice.

Kennedy said that he began offering brief prayers on the field in 2008, then praying on his own. He was subsequently approached by several team members who asked what he was doing.

“I was thanking God for you guys,” Kennedy recalls responding. “Then a couple said they were Christians and asked if they could join. I responded, ‘It’s a free country, you can do whatever you want to do.’”

He said that he never asked students to pray with him, but some desired to, including those from the opposing team.

“They just all showed up one day and the next thing I know, the other team was showing up with us,” Kennedy said.

In September 2015, the Bremerton School District launched an investigation into the coach’s practices, and soon sent a letter outlining that some aspects of his religious expression must discontinue. It noted that Kennedy not only prayed at the conclusion of each game, but also prayed in the locker room with students and staff.

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While Superintendent Aaron Leavell acknowledged that “[e]ach activity has been voluntary” and that Kennedy has not “actively encouraged or required participation,” he asserted that the practices were still unconstitutional. He laid out rules so that the district would decrease its chances of a lawsuit, stating that while Kennedy may engage in religious activity, “students may not be allowed to join such activity.”

But although Kennedy agreed to discontinue the locker room prayer, his attorneys with the Texas-based group First Liberty stated that he had done nothing wrong in seeking to pray by himself at the conclusion of each game. They opined there is neither any constitutional violation in permitting students to join.

As Kennedy offered a prayer at October’s homecoming game, and was voluntarily surrounded by his team and scores of other supporters, he was consequently placed on paid leave until he agrees not to pray at the 50-yard-line. In January, the district decided not to renew his teaching contract, effectively putting him out of a job.

In December, the former U.S. Marine turned football coach filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging workplace retaliation against his Christian expression in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Now, Kennedy’s attorneys have also filed a federal lawsuit challenging his firing at the high school.

“Upon information and belief, although BHS Assistant Coach David Boynton has engaged in a Buddhist chant at the 50-yard line at the conclusion of many BHS games—and has continued to do so after BSD issued its … letter—BSD did not take adverse employment action against Coach Boynton on the basis of his religious expression,” the legal challenge reads.

Kennedy is seeking a declaratory judgment, as well as a court order reinstating his employment.

“Citizens who work for government are not banned from praying. That’s not the law. That’s religious hostility and discrimination,” Mike Berry, Senior Counsel at First Liberty Institute, said in a statement. “All we are asking is for Coach Kennedy to be reinstated and for the school to allow him to continue to pray alone at the fifty-yard line after the game.”

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  • BobButtons

    “He said that he never asked students to pray with him, but some desired to, including those from the opposing team.” That doesn’t matter. The results are the same which is he is leading a prayer. It outcasts those team members that are of a different religion or of none putting those who join in a favorable light. That was the problem with it. It doesn’t matter if on paper it was optional. For anyone confused as to why this is an issue, an easy way to tell is to swap out the religion with any other. if the coach was of middle-eastern descent and said a prayer to Allah and some team members joined in, it’s hard to even imagine the hell that would break loose about it.

    • If they, of their own volition wanted to join in, then you are denying all of them their constitutional rights.

      Let’s switch the religion: “if the coach was of middle-eastern descent and said a prayer to Allah and some team members joined in”, LET THEM! Are we to let stupid, bigoted people cause us to deny persons their constitutional right to worship whichever god they choose?

      • BobButtons

        It’s funny you say let them about it being a different religion but if you look up just about any other story about other religions pushing these boundaries (since it’s primarily Christianity with it being the majority) you’ll see countless Christians up in arms about it freaking out like crazy. Many of them even hate the idea of Islam being taught in a theology class let alone be in a gray state/church area. So you may say let them, but the overwhelming reaction when it happens doesn’t support it. Also, when I say it outcasts them I’m not talking about people getting their precious little feelings hurt because someone else wants to pray. I’m all for religious freedom. The problem is the coach cannot legally be involved even if the students are voluntarily joining. If your primary news source is from religious sources you’re most likely not going to see it but there are countless stories out there of school athletes getting unfavorable treatment by the coaching staff and/or other team mates because they don’t feel comfortable participating in illegal religious activities going on at the public school. So it’s not about being overly sensitive, it’s about a public school staff member creating an environment that separates his students in a way countlessly determined to be illegal by the supreme court. Contrary to the authors of articles such as these, the coach has the right to ‘personal’ religious freedom but he does not have ‘public school coach’ religious freedom with which he can use to separate teammates that side with his religious beliefs and those who don’t.

        • My outlook is affected by my being Jamaican. In our schools Religious Education classes, Christianity, Judaism, Muslim, Buddhism, Rastafarianism are all taught. Others too if we have the books available.

    • IzTheBiz

      Rubbish! You people are pathetic! Get a hobby of you are bored! Or better still, do something worthwhile with yourself and help the needy! Too hard, I guess

      • BobButtons

        It’s possible to care about multiple issues simultaneously. One of those happens to be public staff illegally endorsing their religious beliefs over others. He deserved what he got.

        • IzTheBiz

          You’ll have something real to be concerned about soon, as society comes crashing down around you-it’s called judgement! Hold tight, it’s going to be a bumpy ride, son!

  • If the man feels the need to pray and hasn’t asked anyone to join him, why deny him his constitutional rights?

    Olympic athletes often pray right there on the field before an event. Does that mean that no U.S. city will host another Olympics? (You dare not stop the athlete from praying)

  • Tim White

    Assuming a federal court will even entertain the lawsuit, he’s going to lose, and lose quickly. The law is very clear on this issue.